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On Thanking our Feminist Foremothers

Do you know how your life is better because of feminism? If you don’t, Sarah Nell will show you that many of our taken for granted opportunities today are a result of feminist struggles for equality. She will also try to compel you to thank them for what they’ve done for you.

I am a feminist. Lately, I have been thinking about feminists who are much older than I am, and feeling appreciative for the roads they have paved for me.  Gloria Steinem, arguably one of the most prominent and important (white) feminists we have known, turned 80 this year. So would have Audre Lorde, revered Black lesbian feminist poet, if she hadn’t died of cancer in 1992.  There is something about that generation of feminists that is important for us to know. For instance, it is hard sometimes to imagine what it was like when women like Steinem and Lorde were my age; I have grown up taking much for granted. It’s worth noting that I am white and middle-class. I recognize my race and class privilege, and know that these shape my experiences and perspectives.

I was raised in a family with relatively traditional gender values. My dad was the breadwinner and my mom the homemaker. My mom did go to work full-time when I, the youngest child, went to school and I have grown to appreciate the important impact having a working mother had on my own career ambitions. As I got older and developed a feminist- consciousness, I talked to my mom about these things. When I asked why she didn’t pursue a career when she was younger, she would say, “It was just that way back then. You got married and had a family.” She seems to know that her unpaid domestic labor was a valuable contribution to our family economy, but also that she had the potential to be more than this arrangement allowed.  Given the context in which she grew up, it wasn’t a huge leap for her to fall into this pattern. And, for the most part, mom was right. Women had to be willing to withstand the very steep, uphill battle towards a different path, and to believe that it was worth doing.

We have a bad habit of taking these opportunities for granted.

But it wasn’t that way for me, I am now pushing 40, and it probably is not that way for you (if you are around my age or younger). Thanks to the feminists from previous generations, today’s women take a lot for granted. The opportunity to play sports, the visibility of (albeit still too few) women in leadership positions such as Congress and as CEOs of major corporations, the availability of technology and resources that allow us to decide when to have children (or not to if that’s what we choose), and to not be ousted from the workplace once we do. And the opportunity to pursue an education with the goal of excelling in a career-not just finding an educated husband-was hard won.  (Today, women make up 57% of college students, outnumbering men in college enrollment across the nation). Today, my daughter and her friends are raised with the expectation that they will develop their own professional identities, rather than identities connected solely to men and family (e.g. wife and mother).

There is much that I have taken for granted during my 38 years.  Now, I find myself excelling in a career where my contributions are valued and I am respected. And I need to thank the older feminists who came before me who put up with a lot of crap from the patriarchy and from the individual men who felt threatened by a woman’s presence in “his” workplace. I’m talking about blatant sexual harassment, undermining of authority, silencing of grievances, lower pay, snide remarks, and more. If you haven’t yet, go watch the 1980 movie “9-5”(starring the incomparable Jane Fonda, Dolly Parton, and Lily Tomlin) for a glimpse of what I mean. At the time, maybe these women waded through the harassment as they pursued careers for themselves, because they believed they were worth more than society was offering them. But they were also doing it for me, and for you, and your sisters, and your daughters, and your granddaughters. They put up with all that crap and blazed terrifying, degrading trails because they knew it was wrong and unfair that men had a stranglehold on all of society’s resources–wealth, power, physicality, education, and so on. They had faith that women had more to offer than they were being asked to give.

So, if you are a feminist, or want to become one, or if you care about women having equal rights but don’t call yourself a feminist, here’s some advice: Find an aging feminist and befriend her. These women are a living history/herstory of what once was. They are reminders of the fight that we need to continue fighting. We have made enormous leaps compared to the terrain the feminists of Gloria Steinem’s and Audre Lorde’s generations faced. But we are not finished. Nowhere near it. And the problems we face are, in many respects, different today. Misogyny has, unfortunately, evolved with the times. There is still work to be done to achieve the gender equality for which they blazed rugged trails.

 Misogyny has, unfortunately, evolved with the times.

In her recent, powerful speech at the United Nations, Emma Watson identified the many reasons feminism—the fundamental movement for gender equality—is still needed around the entire globe.  The backlash to Watson’s speech reveals, with a bit of irony, the deep roots of patriarchy and misogyny that we aim to overcome. I urge you to recognize what we take for granted and move beyond those so-called victories to achieve more victories. The ultimate victory, of course, is true gender equality, where women and men, regardless of age, race, class, sexuality, or geography are equal. By listening to the stories of aging feminists, we may feel compelled to continue the fight against patriarchal domination, rather than passively accepting the gains they made on our behalf. Failing to continue the fight implicitly disrespects the intense struggles of our feminist foremothers. I urge you to be inspired by feminists old and young, to improve upon the mistakes they made, and to act. Find an aging feminist. Listen to her stories. And, most importantly, thank her.

Dig Deeper:

  1. Who were the feminists in your life? They could be family members, teachers, neighbors, friends, or anyone else in your world. Describe what they said or did that made you think they were a feminist. What did you learn from them? (After you’re done writing, why not call them up and thank them? They’d love to hear from you).
  2. Many people are uncomfortable with being labeled a feminist. Even if people support equality between men and women (which is the broadest definition of feminism) they might not call themselves a feminist. This leads to two questions: 1. Would you be comfortable calling yourself a feminist? 2. Regardless of your answer explain why you answered question 1 the way you did.
  3. Identify aspects of your daily life that have been impacted by feminism. Which victories are evident in your everyday life? If you get stuck, think about the impact feminism may have had on: (1) the role of education in your life, (2) sports, (3) your career goals, (4) your family and (5) how you see (or define) yourself in relation to the larger social, familial, political, and economic systems that surround you. If you get really stuck, read this.
  4. In her speech to the United Nations, Emma Watson was criticized for focusing too much on what men stand to gain. While Watson’s speech was not without its flaws, she makes the important point that feminism isn’t just for women, it’s for men too. How can men benefit from feminism? How can women benefit from men’s participation in feminism? How can we encourage men, who will no doubt lose privileges that inequality awards them, in the fight for gender equality?